Book 5, Chapter 04 : Of a Virtuous Despotism

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Book 5, Chapter 04




Supposed excellence of this form of government controverted -- from the narrowness of human powers. -- Case of a vicious administration -- of a virtuous administration intended to be formed. -- Monarchy not adapted to the government of large states.

There is a principle, frequently maintained upon this subject1, which is entitled to impartial consideration. It is granted, by those who espouse it, "that absolute monarchy, from the imperfection of those by whom it is administered, is, for the most part, productive of evil;" but they assert, "that it is the best and most desirable of all forms under a good and virtuous prince. It is exposed," say they, "to the fate of all excellent natures, and, from the best thing, frequently, if corrupted, becomes the worst." This remark is certainly not very decisive of the general question, so long as any weight shall be attributed to the arguments which have been adduced to evince what sort of character and disposition may be ordinarily expected in princes. It may however be allowed, if true, to create in the mind of a sort of partial retrospect to this happy and perfect despotism; and, if it can be shown to be false, it will render the argument for the abolition of monarchy, so far as it is concerned, more entire and complete.

Now, whatever dispositions any man may possess in favor of the welfare of others, two things are necessary to give them validity; discernment and power. I can promote the welfare of a few persons, because I can be sufficiently informed of their circumstances. I can promote the welfare of many in certain general articles, because, for this purpose, it is only necessary that I should be informed of the nature of the human mind as such, not of the personal situation of the individuals concerned. But for one man to undertake to administer the affairs of millions, to supply, not general principles and perspicuous reasoning, but particular application, and measures adapted to the necessities of the moment, is of all undertakings the most extravagant and absurd.

The most simple and obvious system of practical administration is for each man to be the arbiter of his own concerns. If the imperfection, the narrow views, and the mistakes of human beings, render this, in certain cases, inexpedient and impracticable, the next resource is to call in the opinion of his peers, persons who, from their vicinity, may be presumed to have some general knowledge of the case, and who have leisure and means minutely to investigate the merits of the question. It cannot reasonably be doubted, that the same expedient which is resorted to in our civil and criminal concerns, would, by plain and uninstructed mortals, be adopted in the assessment of taxes, in the deliberations of commerce, and in every other article in which their common interests were involved, only generalizing the deliberative assembly, or pannel, in proportion to the generality of the question to be decided.

Monarchy, instead of referring every question to the persons concerned or their neighbors, refers it to a single individual, placed at the greatest distance possible from the ordinary members of the society. Instead of distributing the causes to be judged into as many parcels as convenience would admit, for the sake of providing leisure and opportunities of examination, it draws them to a single center, and renders inquiry and examination impossible. A despot, however virtuously disposed, is obliged to act in the dark, to derive his knowledge from other men's information, and to execute his decisions by other men's instrumentality. Monarchy seems to be a species of government proscribed by the nature of man; and those persons, who furnished their despot with integrity and virtue, forgot to add omniscience and omnipotence, qualities not less necesssary to fit him for the office they had provided.

Let us suppose this honest and incorruptibe despot to be served by ministers, avaricious, hypocritical and interested. What will the people gain by the good intentions of their monarch? He will mean them the greatest benefits, but he will be altogether unacquainted with their situation, their character and their wants. The inforamtion he receives, will frequently be the very reverse of the truth. He will be taught that one individiual is highly meritorious, and a proper subject of reward, whose only merit is the profligate servility with which he has fulfilled the purposes of his administration. He will be taught that another is the pest of the community, who is indebted for this report, to the steady virtue with which he has traversed and defeated the wickedness of government. He will mean the greatest benefits to his people; but, when he prescribes something calculated for thier advantage, his servants, under pretense of complying, shall, in reality, perpretrate diametrically the reverse. Nothing will be more dangerous, than to endeaovour to reomove the obscurity with which his ministers surround him. The man, who attemps so hardy a task, will become the incessant object of their hatred. However incorruptible may be the justice of the sovereign, the time will come when his observation will be laid asleep, while malice and revenge are ever vigilant. Could he unfold the secrets of his prison-houses of state, he would find men committed in his name, whose crimes he never knew, whose names he never heard of, perhaps men whom he honored and esteemed. Such is the history of the benevolent and philanthropic despots whom memory has recorded; and the conclusion from the whole is, that, wherever despotism exists, there it will always be attended with the evils of despotism, capricious measures and arbitrary infliction.

"But will not a wise king provide himself with good and virtous servants?" Undoubtedly he will effect a part of this, but he cannot supersende the nature of things. He that executes an office as a deputy will never discharge it in the same spirit, as if he were the principal. Either the minister must be the author of the plans which he carries into effect, and then it is of little consequence, except so far as relates to his integrity in the choice of his servants, what sort of mortal the sovereign shall be found; or he must play a subordinate part, and then it is impossible to transfuse into his mind the perspicacity and energy of his master. Wherever despotism exists, it cannot remain in a single hand, but must be transmitted whole and entire through the progressive links of authority. To render despotism auspicious and benign, it is necessary, not only that the sovereign should possess every human excellence, but that all his officers should be men of penetrating genius and unspotted virtue. If they fall short of this, they will, like the ministers of Elizabeth, be sometimes specious profligates2, and sometimes men who, however admirably adapted for the technical emergencies of business, consult, on many occasions exclusively, their private advantage, worship the rising sun, enter into vindictive cabals, and cuff down new-fledged merit3. Wherever the continuity is broken, the flood of vise will bear down all before it. One weak or disingenuous man will be the source of unbounded mischief.

Another position, not less generally asserted than the desirableness of a virtuous despotism, is ;that republicanism is a species of government practicable only in a small state, while monarchy is best fitted to embrace the concerns of a vast and flourishing empire." The reverse of this, so far at least as relates to monarchy, appears at first sight to be the truth. The competence of any government cannot be measured by a purer standard than the extent and accuracy of its information. In this respect monarchy appears in all cases to be wretchedly deficient; but if it can ever be admitted, it must surely be in those narrow and limited instances where an individual can, with least absurdity, be supposed to be acquainted with the affiars and interests of the whole4.


1See Tom Jones, Book XII, Chap. XII.
2Dudley earl of Leicester.
3Cecil earl of Salisbury, lord treasurer; Howard earl of Nottingham, lord admiral, etc.
4Paine's Letter to the Republican.

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January 26, 2017 19:23:39 :
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